My husband and I have been watching an excellent NetFlix series based on Michael Pollan's new book, Cooked. (It is really well done, and I highly recommend it if you are at all interested in food, cooking, or health!) Last night we watched the episode on bread, and it got me thinking about all of the misinformation that abounds about this ancient and time-honored foodstuff.
Read on to learn why bread is not as evil as you have been led to believe, and how you can eat all the bread you like, while enjoying the true health and nutrition provided by this unique traditional food.
While bread may not have been around quite as long as fire, humans have been consuming bread at least since we transitioned from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to an agrarian lifestyle - and probably even earlier. Basically, since the beginning of civilization as we know it.
Bread is referred to in our most ancient texts, well before the Bible, although of course it also holds a prominent place there as well. (In the King James version, the word "bread" appears 361 times!) It truly has been one of the most important foodstuffs in human history - and one without which, one could argue, we may not have been able to survive as long as we have.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
- Matthew 26:26
It's not about the bread...it's about how it's made.
The truth is, bread is a truly unique and amazing food. Grain (wheat in particular) by itself is practically indigestible by the human body. If you were to take a handful of wheat and chew on the grains for a while, you might eventually (after a lot of work) derive some nutrition from them - but not much. Bread, on the other hand, is a different story....
To make bread, you only need 2 ingredients: flour and water (and maybe a little salt for flavor). This may not sound too exciting, but the real magic occurs when grain is ground into flour, combined with water, and then allowed to ferment.
This last part is absolutely key to bread's nutritional value - and digestibility. And this is the part that is now missing from the bread of today.
When modern processing methods first stripped the nutrients from wheat to make white flour in the late 1800's, we quickly learned that nutrient deficiency was the result. The food processing industry's answer? To replace the lost nutrition with a few synthetic vitamin additives. Not quite the same thing, but it did at least partially solve the issue. However, there was one thing they forgot to add back in.... And that was the aspect of fermentation - something that has been missing from our bread for the past century or so.
Fermentation eliminates all of the issues associated with the "evils" of bread. As natural yeasts ferment the sugars in the flour, they also partially digest the starches and proteins (including gluten), unlocking the nutrients trapped in the fibers of the grain, and turning what was an indigestible, fibrous pile of grain into a light, airy, chewy, delicious and nutritious food.
I bet that just made your mouth water, didn't it? I won't go into the hows and whys of the human digestive system right now, but suffice it to say that there is a reason we love bread!
Despite what some "Paleo" dieters may argue, our bodies have indeed evolved to digest grain - but only when it is partially digested for us - through the process of fermentation. Not only does fermentation help make grain more digestible, but it also makes the nutrition contained in the grain available to us. This is why we can survive on just bread and water for quite a long time - but not on plain raw (or even cooked) grain.
Humans are the only animal that cooks - and we are certainly the only one that has developed such ingenious methods for turning indigestible raw ingredients into nutritious food. Bread is a part of our heritage, and it is high time that we remember this heritage, and take it back!
I confess I have been on the anti-bread bandwagon for the past few years myself. After growing up eating home-made bread every day, I find store-bought breads (even the fancy "artisanal" ones) pretty dull and tasteless. The only breads I have truly loved during my adult life have been some of the breads I tried while traveling in Europe (many of which probably still are made using traditional fermentation methods).
I've also known many people afflicted with the discomfort caused by gluten intolerance - a problem that seems to be growing in severity and scope every year.
But watching the episode of "Cooked" last night reminded me that not all bread is the same. The bread of our ancestors is not the same as the bread we have been eating for the past 50-75 years in America. So it's not really fair to put all bread in the same basket, so to speak.
As with many other vilified foods (meat, dairy, fat, etc.), it's not necessarily the food itself that is causing us problems; it is the way the food is raised and processed. Quality and preparation make all the difference in whether a food is healthy and good for us, or makes us sick. Bread is no exception.
If you love bread, the best thing you can do for your health is to learn to make your own, using natural and traditional fermentation methods. Then, enjoy as much bread as you want! Otherwise, I would still suggest avoiding it.
One last thing: If you've never tried making bread before, it can seem a bit intimidating. My suggestion is to just go for it! You may have to experiment a few times to get it just right, but that's part of the fun of cooking! Here is a great, simple recipe from WeedEmAndReap.com to get you started: http://www.weedemandreap.com/recipe-homemade-bread/
Happy bread making! :-)